…all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
— The Virginia Statute of
In this presidential election cycle, American Muslims became a subtext of American politics that exposed the profound religious bigotry embedded in some segments of American society.
A few months ago, some unscrupulous activists were sending emails claiming that Barak Obama was secretly a Muslim and in spite of repeated denials, often vehement ones, by the Obama campaign, for a long time nearly 10% of the country believed in them. The main assumption behind this tactic was that for some the mere possibility that Obama was Muslim was sufficient to discredit him.
The irony of this episode during the campaign season is that the cads who were claiming that Obama was secretly a Muslim were banking on the existence of religious bigotry amongst McCain’s supporters. The subtext of this tactics: We have many bigots in our society; let us exploit this reality by spreading lies about Obama’s faith.
Another episode highlights the persistence of prejudice. At a campaign event, John McCain took the microphone away from a supporter who was saying that Obama was an Arab and said “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].”
McCain’s answer was more distressing than the sentiment of his ignorant follower. The gist of his reply appears to be that Obama is not an Arab; he is a decent family man and a citizen. The subtext of his answer: Arabs are foreigners, indecent and have no family values; and since Obama was a decent fellow he could not be an Arab.
So why do some in a party that has been served so well by Arab Americans like John Sununu, a former governor and current senator from New Hampshire, and Spencer Abraham, the former senator from Michigan and co-chairman of the Republican Party (there are many more examples) fear and disapprove of Arabs? Well the subtext is: For some, Arabs are ok as long as they are Christians; it’s the Muslim ones who are unacceptable.
This is such a shame. But fortunately the Republican Party’s afflictions are not mainstream anymore. America has changed significantly and for the better.
Most Americans know that the bipartisan 9/11 Commission report not only exonerated American Muslims of any connections to the attacks on 9/11, but also did not see them as a future threat at all. Several studies have found American Muslims to be typical examples of mainstream, upwardly mobile, middle class Americans, who far from being suspect, are an asset to this nation.
American Muslims continue to engage in politics and are beginning to have more impact than before. In the past two years, Americans have elected two practicing and openly Muslim Muslims to the U.S. Congress; Keith Ellison from Minnesota’s fifth district and Andre Carson from Indiana’s seventh district. Zalmay Khalilzad is currently U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and has in recent years served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan. Fareed Zakaria, who like Khalilzad is also a Muslim, is now a major voice in America’s political discourse. And Kareem Khan, who won a Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart, was martyred in Iraq while fighting for America.
They are all American heroes; extraordinary, each one of them. They show that in elected office, in government bureaucracy, in the military and in civil society, American Muslims are fighting the tide of Islamophobia, overcoming prejudice, and finding their rightful place in society.
General Colin Powell in his endorsement of Obama’s candidacy, said: “‘I am also troubled by — not what Senator McCain says — but what members of the Party say, and it is permitted to be said: such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is he is not a Muslim. He’s a Christian; has always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, “What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?”
No General Powell. There is nothing wrong with that. I am a Muslim, and a proud one at that.
Subtext: I voice my thoughts freely, boldly, and frequently. And like you, I too will fight to keep this country free – free from prejudice, free from xenophobia and free from intolerance.
Muqtedar Khan is Director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. This article was first printed on Middle East Online.